My mother's maid said when my cousin committed suicide that it was "uso"--that is, she had heard of a lot of people killing themselves lately. I dismissed that as absurd, but hearing that a University of the Philippines student had just poisoned herself, I have to think again about that. Last October, my husband's cousin went with his choir to sing at the spot where a student at his school had thrown himself to his death after getting failing grades for the semester. Falling, stabbing, posioning--with these few cases I know of alone I could already start a book about ways desperate young people kill themselves.
Is it becoming common? Or just more commonly known about? I think it's significant that we've been hearing lately of students doing it over failure in school or, in the case of the UP student, failure to pay tuition, and thus losing credit for all her classes for a semester.
We still look to higher education for hope to better our situation. For those who are dirt poor, it may seem to be their only hope. Perhaps this poor student should not have been encouraged to put all her eggs in the education basket, given that so much depended on the administration's willingness to make exceptions in her case. Mysterious that a state university should demand payment of tuition--yes, it had already been lowered considerably, I will grant that. But a state university is supposed to be a nonprofit institution and exists precisely to provide education to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. If the administration was going to insist on seeing that pittance of a tuition within a month after the student said she could not pay, then they could at least have advised her to take her leave of absence and get a job first. If they're going to be strict about tuition payments then they should have more arrangements for giving students work. After all, it's hard enough for college graduates to get a decent paying job these days; you can't assume a student is going to find any opportunities that will keep her from starving, let alone save for her tuition.
I know stories of people who made it through college despite extreme poverty. Wrote an article about such a guy, in fact, Ron Balbieran, son of a junkshop owner. He made it thanks to scholarships from high school onwards--in private schools.
I know quite a bit about the changes in student aid policies because my mother works for the said university (another branch, but same policies apply). A few years back students were allowed to apply for loans with a person working for the university backing them. Now given the salaries UP pays, quite a few of these people didn't have much either, having families and expenses of their own. And some of the staff, even nonacademic staff like clerks who have quite low pay, would pity students and agree to back them. You may say they're crazy and impractical, but I think they were moved to sympathy, being not much better off than the students who needed tuition assistance.
The reason for a university employee as a backer was that whenever a student defaulted the tuition would be taken from their pay. Brilliant. The university puportedly provides aid that makes their own employees poorer.
I know the university doesn't have a lot of money. But some of the colleges get grants. There are enough rich students, I believe, to earn them money for basic expenses. In any case, can't they find other sources of income than their students and employees so they can go back to serving their purpose of providing education to the poor?
I once taught at a private university where students were allowed until the final exams to complete their tuition payments. And even then teachers could choose to allow students to take the finals, with the understanding that their grades would not be available until they paid the balance.
That ought to be enough. A grade in a database is not much good anyway to a student who is unable to complete his or her degree.
Of course, these students ought to realize that education is a commodity nobody can really take away from you. Okay, you won't get your grade, which is what hiring companies look at. But chances are you got something out of the class anyway. Both my mom and I have taken courses which later were not officially credited. Her professor somehow left the country without giving her a grade, and she just took the course again, satisfied that she ahd enjoyed the class meetings and learned from them. In my case I got the grade (top marks, in fact) but it turned out the course was not credited so it's more a waste of tuition which I can barely afford. I am aware though it was my choice and it did help me write the story I wanted to write.
As a teacher, I have had to fail students, though I always hated to. And they almost always do come to you for an explanation. Before I send them off I tell them that the next time they take the course they chould have an easier time since they hopefully already learned something the first time.
Because nobody can take what you learned away from you. And you can always put it to good use somehow. If you really learned something.
Still, you cannot fault young people in these difficult times for focusing on the elements of education that will give them earning capacity. The grades, and as much as possible the degree. You can talk your way around this; I've done it myself. It's not easy though, and rarely successful. Besides, not many HR people will take an interest in a resume that lacks the conventional assets in the first place. Not in today's competitive job market.
Schools are not just businesses. They provide a service which can give the opportunity for a better life. For the poor and desperate, it may seem like their only hope. And the schools encourage the investment of hope in education because it helps them get and keep students. When you look at it this way, grades and school do not seem like such petty things to give up one's life for.
Knowing this, schools should be more compassionate towards students who want to finish school and reserve the harshness for the rich kids who take the education they are getting for granted. The UP admin should not have just treated this like a business matter. They were acting like a bank--gave a loan, permitted extension, and took back the purchase when the loan could not be paid on the deadline. If they're going to deny a request, they have a duty to explain why and give alternatives.
Because there are always alternatives, always other possibilities. I may come from a family in the academe but I don't romanticize education as the only hope. Nor should anyone, especially with the way many schools are run these days.